Aug. 24: The F-16s were scrambled in vain. The 12 men offloaded from a Mumbai-bound US flight and detained in Amsterdam yesterday are of Indian descent but posed no terrorist threat, Dutch authorities said today.
Strengthening the feeling that the 12 — all from a single community and some wearing skull caps — had been victims of needless panic, or prejudice, on the flight crew’s part, Dutch prosecutors said late tonight they were releasing the men.
“From the statements of the suspects and the witnesses, no evidence could be brought forward that these men were about to commit an act of violence,” the prosecutor’s office said.
Earlier, junior foreign minister Anand Sharma had confirmed in Delhi that the men, all born in Mumbai and returning from a textile fair in Tobago, had been charged only with “flight disruption and not terrorist acts”.
Their relatives in Mumbai alleged the men were targeted because of their religion. “Some of the group members have beards,” said Lubna Kolsawala, sister-in-law of one of the detainees, Ayub Kolsawala. “They have been detained only because they are Muslim.”
The men, apparently aged between 25 and 35, were speaking Urdu and many wore the salwar-kameez, fellow passengers said. They started passing around mobiles and plastic bags soon after the plane took off from Amsterdam — where it had made a stopover — alarming flight attendants who informed the pilots about the “suspicious behaviour”.
At the pilot’s request, the Northwest Airlines flight from Minneapolis, NW0042, was diverted back to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport with two F-16 fighters escorting it. The 12 suspects were handcuffed and taken away.
If the captain’s decision reflected the jitters persisting in the airline industry for the past two weeks — since UK police unearthed a plot to blow up several US-bound airliners in mid-air simultaneously — the suspects’ co-passengers were no less agitated.
The Algemeen Dagblad newspaper quoted a Dutch businessman as saying the suspects were walking up and down the aisle after take-off. “I saw the air marshals walking, and then you know something’s wrong.”
Another passenger said: “I don’t know how close we were, but my gut tells me these people wanted to hijack the plane.”
But an Indian, Simon Balakrishwan, said, “I thought they were celebrating a stag party. After the plane took off, a mobile rang and the men started cheering. They kept exchanging plastic bags and looking in them and laughing. Irritating passengers.”
Another passenger, who arrived in Mumbai tonight, claimed at least seven of the suspects had been asleep when they were handcuffed.
An agency report identified the detainees as Sohail Abdul Aziz Nizami, Ayub Kolsawala, Sajid Qadir, Yusuf Haji Ghaffar Memon, Nur Mohammed Batliwala, Shakeel Usman Chotani, Ayub Khan, Ehsan Farooqi, Ghulam Mustafa, Mohammed Yusuf, Mohammed Imran and Mohammed Iqbal Batliwala.
Their 137 co-passengers kept trickling into Mumbai aboard other flights tonight.
One of them, Sama Hussain, 53, said Northwest Airlines had been uncooperative since Wednesday, telling passengers neither why the plane had been diverted nor when they might reach Mumbai.
The incident could hurt Northwest which, after Air-India, flies the most Indians between the two countries and is the preferred carrier for Indians travelling to and from US cities other than New York.
Legal experts said the detainees wouldn’t be able to sue the Dutch authorities for harassment, for investigating agencies have the right to take suspects into custody for questioning.